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Let It Be and Jersey Boys: Preview

Joan Davies pays tribute to the tributes

Written by . Published on March 1st 2014.

Let It Be and Jersey Boys: Preview

Tribute musicals such as Mama Mia or We Will Rock You are becoming a sub-genre in themselves. 

The Jersey Boys is already a world-wide hit. Let It Be has the dream musical catalogue to draw from, and that's probably enough.

Increasing in popularity they block-book some of our larger theatres providing much needed revenue in what can be difficult times. Yet critically they are largely ignored or looked down on as being unartistic, merely a copy. They’ve even prompted dissertations researching the very reasons why people attend. 

The formula is quite simple: pick a popular band with a strong back catalogue, put together a number of great well-known and a few less well-known songs then match them to a story of the band or a story of the times. Less popular but possibly more honest is a straight-up tribute band just trying to look and sound like the original artists and churning out much loved songs. Two tribute musicals are to open their British tours in Manchester: Let It Be, a tribute to the biggest band ever, The Beatles, opened Friday 28 February and The Jersey Boys, one of the most successful tribute musicals, telling the story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons opens in September to add Manchester to its worldwide audience count of nineteen million. 

The launch events for both of these musicals gave a pretty strong guarantee that the copied aspect would be sound. I know every drum roll, guitar riff, key change and ‘oooo’ of the bulk of The Beatles’ catalogue, and they were all there, despite Ringo’s limited bar-room drum-kit. Frankie Valli’s falsetto and octave range was pretty convincing too. 

As a lifelong fan I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to chat with Paul McCartney at the launch, “I'm definitely a musician first and an actor second,” said James Fox (Paul) in his faint Welsh rather than Liverpudlian accent. That James is more of a fan of McCartney’s solo work then of his Beatles’ work shows in his choice of The Long and Winding Road as his favourite to perform. 

Let It Be contains about 40 of the Beatles songs, many of them never performed live onstage by the Beatles themselves, so I’m hoping that seeing and hearing the later songs live will be as impressive as the launch performance of the earlier catalogue suggests.

There is no story to the show, just a patter in between numbers. So is Let It Be just another tribute band gig at theatre prices? Possibly, but the production values, sets, costume and importantly, wigs, should bring a strong sense of value to the show itself. You could (and I would) argue that the music alone is one of the greatest popular music stories ever: the massive trajectory on which the Beatles drove popular music, changing it forever. It’s hard to believe they did so much in the space of time that some bands would spend on three largely similar albums today. Put the show together with a reread of Ian MacDonald’s wonderful book Revolution in the Head and you’ll have revisited something magical.  By contrast The Jersey Boys does have a story, chronicling their rise to stardom from the streets of New Jersey. Again the performance we were treated to at the launch event was stunning in its ability to recreate the original and unique sound. There is no doubt a musical on this scale is a brand, supported through careful selection, an immense training programme and strong quality control. Finding actors with the ability, skill and stamina to impersonate Frankie Valli and his superb falsetto is no easy task. 

The appeal of such musicals can reach all ages. Those who remember the music from their youth are transported back to days of greater innocence, uncertainty and optimism while the younger generations get a chance to enjoy music that they know has been influential, and which still has currency today.

There’s something about sixties, even seventies music which adds appeal. If you were there and recall it, you’ll remember how it was nowhere near as easy to listen to music. It wasn’t around 24:7, apart from the crackly Radio Luxembourg, record collections were small and played out of adult earshot. I think we listened more intently, hence recreations can transport us. 

The critics can be as sniffy as they like. If the show entertains and is good value then the audiences will flock to it. Some tribute musicals haven’t worked and folded quickly, so were just an exercise in a quick buck come unstuck.

The Jersey Boys is already a world-wide hit. Let It Be has the dream musical catalogue to draw from, and that's probably enough.

Apparently there’s a lawsuit in America because the songs and presentation are similar to those of another Beatles tribute musical. Lawsuit... America? Never.

Let it Be is at The Palace Theatre from Friday 28 February Saturday 8 March

The Jersey Boys will be at the Palace for a one month run from September.

Palace Theatre tickets here.

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